US Senate to clash with White House over airport screeners

Senate drive to approve homeland security legislation could lead to a clash with the White House over airport screeners and standardized drivers' licenses.

The Senate planned to begin debate Tuesday. The legislation would improve rail and aviation security, provide funds for state and local emergency communications systems, improve intelligence sharing between federal, state and local officials, and expand a visa waiver benefit for favored countries.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, told the Senate on Monday that it is time to implement the remaining recommendations of the 9/11 commission, issued last year.

A provision in the Senate legislation would require that airport screeners receive the same collective bargaining and whistle-blower rights held by most federal employees. However, it received only Democratic support when it was approved by the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

It is possible that this language could run into partisan problems on the Senate floor, where there might not be enough votes to overcome a Republican filibuster. By themselves, Democrats would lack the 60 votes needed to end Republican delaying tactics that could kill the provision in the 100-person chamber.

At the time the committee adopted the unionization provision, chairman Joe Lieberman, now an independent senator, said that screeners, who became a federal work force after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had been denied the most basic employee protections.

Saying the screeners had been beset with "unusually high rates of attrition, vacancy, workplace injury, discrimination complaints and other indications of employee dissatisfaction," Lieberman predicted that the measure would improve security.

The Bush administration strongly opposed the provision, and committee Republicans argued that the Homeland Security Department needs flexibility in setting screeners' schedules and procedures.

The administration may also oppose expected amendments to the REAL-ID Act, passed in 2005, that set a national standard for drivers' licenses and required states to link their record-keeping systems. Many states have complained about the cost of the program, and civil libertarians are concerned about privacy issues.

A Senate rail security proposal projects spending of just over $1 billion (EUR 760 million) for the next four years to cover upgrading security of both Amtrak passenger trains and of freight rail systems; upgrading Amtrak tunnels in the northeast; creating a rail security research program; and conducting a rail security risk assessment. It would also cover programs to improve security for trucks and buses, pipelines and hazardous material transport.

Aviation security language requires the Transportation Security Administration to implement a system within three years to screen all cargo being carried on commercial passenger aircraft. It is not clear how much this provision could cost, but estimates have ranged from $4 billion (EUR 3 billion) over 10 years to $3 billion (EUR 2.3 billion) over the next five years, the AP says.

The Bush administration has maintained that the provision is unnecessarily restrictive, with TSA chief Kip Hawley arguing that he needs a freer hand and more flexibility in setting security standards.

The aviation security measure also calls for TSA to develop a pilot program using blast-resistant cargo containers and to assess the feasibility of security screening for small private planes.

Senate leaders were hoping to dissuade lawmakers from introducing amendments on the Iraq war, which would almost certainly slow work on the bill to a crawl.

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